Central California

Kern County veterans speak out for medical marijuana as dispensary deadline nears

When Chad Garcia left the army in 2014, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs prescribed him a laundry list of drugs to help him deal with the injuries – mental and physical – he suffered during his service.

“The VA gives you a bag of medication,” he said. “We dub it the ‘combat cocktail.’”

Garcia, 36, had suffered four concussions during his time in the army. One concussion came from the explosion of an IED, another came after a rocket-propelled grenade went off nearby.

The hardest part of his service, he said, was watching his friends fall in combat.

“It’s not like I’m watching them die and nothing is going on,” he said. “I’m watching them die, and then having to fight at the same time.”

He served from 2001-14, with three deployments in Afghanistan, in stints with the 82nd Airborne Division and the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. He eventually attained the rank of sergeant before being medically retired due to post-traumatic stress.

When he returned to Bakersfield, he found it difficult to live the life he wanted to.

“I was drinking down all these pills and trying to adjust myself to transition into civilian life, and it wasn’t working out,” he said.

His thoughts kept returning to his deployment, to what he could have done differently. He was paranoid and had severe mood swings.

“I was losing my family. I was becoming very suicidal myself,” he said.

Garcia eventually turned to medical marijuana after obtaining a prescription.

He now takes various forms of medical marijuana to “stay mellow” throughout the day. He uses a mixture of cannabidiol – a cannabis compound less psychoactive than THC – and indica, a cannabis strain believed to have relaxing effects.

“Just like every other medication, you’ve got to take doses, you’ve got to take it throughout the day,” Garcia said. “You can’t just wake up, take a bong rip, and expect it to work.”

The marijuana aided his symptoms much better than the medication prescribed by the VA, he said.

“I’ve seen a complete change in my temperament, a complete change in the way I interact with people,” he said. “Everybody who knows me has seen a change.”

When Garcia began using medical marijuana, he joined a contingent of the Kern County veteran community who use the drug to deal with maladies accrued while in the service.

Garcia has advocated to the Kern County Board of Supervisors for them to overturn the county’s ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.

He provided an informal survey he conducted to the supervisors, in which 52 of 88 respondents who identified themselves as local veterans said they had used cannabis to relieve health issues.

These veterans, along with every other medical marijuana user in the county, could soon be dealing with the closure of the local market.

All 31 medical marijuana dispensaries currently legally operating are scheduled to shut down Nov. 24 or shortly afterward.

The permits for the dispensaries were grandfathered in after the ban, with the November end date in place should nothing change.

“That would suck,” said U.S. Marine veteran Nick Miranda. “It would make me feel like I’m some kind of high school delinquent who is sneaking out of the house to meet up with a shady character. Veterans should be treated with more dignity than that.”

Miranda, 35, has a metal disk in his foot, placed there after he suffered a repetitive stress injury as a 50-caliber machine gunner on a helicopter during the Iraq War.

He served as a marine from 2006 to 2010, deploying to Iraq in 2007.

While on deployment, a dust storm caused a stomach infection, which impacted Miranda’s appetite.

When he returned to Kern County, he said he became addicted to hydrocodone, which had been prescribed to him by the VA.

“It was horrible,” he said. “The first thing I’d do when I woke up was reach for that pill bottle. It got to the point where I’d chew like three to five at a time and, boom, that would be my morning kick.”

When Miranda turned to marijuana, he found it treated him better than the medication he had been taking for his PTSD, foot injury, and stomach issues.

“It helps me relax, and function out in society without looking like this ADHD guy who is constantly looking like he’s uncomfortable,” he said.

Miranda does not think the situation in the county is ideal. He said the county’s current plan limits the products he is able to purchase, while counties to the west of Kern provide far more options to their customers.

He said most of the veterans he knows, even those who do not use medical marijuana, think the same way he does.

“Veterans, we all talk,” he said. “We’re scratching our heads trying to figure out what’s going on. This is not about political party, either. There are Democrats and Republican veterans. We’re all on the same page for this.”

There is a chance the market could soon open up. Voters this November will consider several ballot measures that could overturn the medical marijuana dispensary bans currently in place in Bakersfield and unincorporated Kern County.

The marijuana issues is unpopular among both the supervisors and the Bakersfield City Council.

Miranda said he hopes attitudes about marijuana will soon change throughout the county.

“I am a veteran. I am a marine,” he said. “I realize that for myself and many of our fellow veterans, this is something that we do need, and this is something that we need in Kern County.”

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